Friday, February 1, 2008

Cowboys Roster Eval Continued: Linebackers

First things first: I’d like to address a player who became a really hot topic during senior bowl week and I didn't get a chance to talk about in my Defensive back evaluation. That player is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Let’s start with some fun facts.
Cromartie is, indeed, the cousin of the peerless Charger cornerback named Antonio.
He attended-this is not a typo-Tennesee State. This is a result of not playing organized football until his senior year of high school.
He’s the most athletically gifted player in this draft. Bar none.
Cromartie’s 6‘3. He has a mysteriously unofficial 40 time, but most project him in the mid-4.3s. While slender at 180 pounds, Cromartie has the strength to jostle with most receivers. He’s been blessed with terrific agility and playmaking ability. Why is this guy not treated as the second coming of Deion? He’s got a couple of big question marks.
The first is his collegiate background. Hailing from TSU is by no means a plus to NFL scouting directors; when asked by Scott Wright about the toughest receiver he’s faced, he cited Efrem Hill of Samford. Hill is an undrafted Browns WR who has yet to catch a pass in the NFL.
The second concern is tied in with the first, and that is a supposed lack of polish. This is a common detriment listed for the really talented players; while they have vast athletic potential, they are not quite the finished products that the hard-hatted, cerebral players can be. Cromartie isn’t seen as ready for the unquestionably major trials that will come with a move from Division-II football to the NFL.
Comparison: Obviously, his cousin comes to mind. The Cromarties are similar players, and it is only natural to compare the two. Another name comes to mind, however; that of Rashean Mathis. Mathis is also a tall cornerback, attended a small school, and was not seen as proven enough to compete with the big boys. If DRC can live up to his potential, he could be as good as either of these shut-down Defensive backs.
I think Cromartie is a perfect fit for the Cowboys. Number one: They must be kicking themselves when considering the ‘06 draft, in which they had the opportunity to draft Antonio with the 18th selection and instead picked up the benchwarming Bobby Carpenter (read on for more on him).Cromartie was taken by San Diego one selection later. I don’t think Jerry will let a similar specimen get away.
Second: This team can afford to slide Cromartie in. Look at last year’s first round cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Aaron Ross. Both were selected as experienced college cornerbacks, and therefore thrust into the spotlight on their new teams. Cromartie, if drafted here, would be the third cornerback behind Newman and Henry- comfortably positioned in a spot from which he can slowly adjust to this league.

Now, on to the linebacking corps!

  1. Demarcus Ware, Outside linebacker. There’s no way for me to give a fair critique of Demarcus Ware. I simply love this man too much. But I’ll try to be objective here. Ware placed third in the league in sacks, notching fourteen. He also forced four fumbles and held his own in coverage. Put this in perspective: Amongst all players with nine or more sacks, Ware was first in tackles. His closest competitor (Julian Peterson) had fully ten less. Ware is the most dominant outside linebacker in the NFL. He’s one of the top five defensive players overall. He’s solid as a rock, consistent as the sunrise. In short, he’s a player you can build a defense around. And he’s only twenty five.
  1. Bradie James, Middle Linebacker. I’m going to catch some flak with this selection. It’s hard to argue against Greg Ellis in this spot, but hear me out. James has been a key cog in this defense during the last three years. He leads with both his words and his play, he shoulders the blame when it is due, and he plays every facet of his position. Bradie registered 101 tackles and three sacks. The former is certainly an impressive number, the latter does not seem that way-until one realizes that middle linebackers simply don’t put up major sack numbers. What I like best about James doesn’t have anything to do with his mentality or his physicality. It’s his knack for being in the right place at the right time. He can take advantage of opportunities; whether he sees a big hole in the middle of the offensive line or a wideout thinking himself clever, Bradie can usually be relied on to exploit the situation. He’s capable against the run, in coverage, and blitzing. He’s the type of middle linebacker everyone wants. Not a star, but a complete player in every way.
  1. Greg Ellis, Outside linebacker. Games played: thirteen. Sacks: Twelve and a half. I won’t deny that Ellis was a dominant pass rusher when he came back from the injury he sustained against Arizona. I also won’t deny, however, that he has evolved into a situational player whose ceaseless whining is every bit as annoying as his blitzing acumen is a amazing. I’m starting to wonder about Ellis; while it can’t be denied that the defense is better with him in the lineup, could he be creating dissent in the locker room? Internal consternation has torn many a good team apart before. All it takes is one strong, veteran presence handing out dirty leaflets and besmirching the king for everyone with a beef to pound on the manor’s front door demanding extravagant signing bonuses and weekends off. That, combined with his age (32), are what caused me to place Ellis below Bradie James. I love his play. But he worries me nonetheless.
  1. Akin Ayodele, middle linebacker. The invisible man. Ayodele isn’t very noticeable on the field or the stat sheet. He doesn’t turn the tide of games or run his mouth. But Ayodele is a solid cover linebacker with good run-stopping tendencies. He seems to be an endearing, personable guy to the media as well as his teammates. He never blitzes in this scheme, but has done so in the past. Ayodele’s capable; that’s the best one-word description I can come up with for him. If he’s your second Inside linebacker, you’re in good shape.
  1. Anthony Spencer, outside linebacker. Spencer was drafted out of Purdue with the Eagles’ selection in this past draft. I didn’t agree with the selection because we had already invested enormous resources into our linebackers, and if you told me that Greg Ellis would play like he has I would have screamed bloody murder. But Spencer was sufficiently impressive, and as I stated Ellis sufficiently concerning in some areas- that I am more at peace with his selection than I once was. Joe Thomas, now a premier left tackle in this league, was asked about the toughest player he’d had to block in college. He named Anthony Spencer. Spencer’s a big linebacker who played mostly Defensive End in the NCAA, but seems to have adjusted well. He’s primarily a pass rusher who can defend the run adequately well. I didn’t get a chance to gauge his coverage abilities. Regardless of Greg Ellis’ future with this organization, Spencer is a darn nice piece to have.
  1. Kevin Burnett, linebacker. Drafted out of Tennesee, seen as a playmaker- Burnett seems to have become a younger Ayodele. Don’t blow anyone up, don’t get burned. If you stay out of the highlight reels, you’re in good shape. I wouldn’t say the second round pick is a disappointment, just that he’s different from what he was perceived to be. A good special teamer who’s filled in well when needed at linebacker spots (Inside from what I’ve seen) who is only 25 years old. He’s a nice piece to have around and will definitely be retained.
  1. Bobby Carpenter, Linebacker Tweener. The Ohio State grad formerly known as Captain Caveman should have kept the ‘stache. It was the one thing going for him. Carpenter ranks behind only Julius Jones and Roy Williams on the list of most oft-berated Cowboys, and It’s not hard to see why. He’s been limited to special teams during his first two seasons in the league. I’m not ready to write him off; there’s a reason guys get selected in the first round. A lot of them struggle at the forefront for various reasons, then become the players they were meant to look like all along. (See: Colombo, Marc) He may even become that player with this franchise. But It’s hard for most of us to envision that, simply looking at his track record with our team of choice.
  1. Justin Rogers, linebacker. To be honest, I don’t know much about Rogers. I scoured the internet and came up with this: He went to SMU, likes to hunt (gave his grandmother a coyote rug), was drafted in the 6th round by the Patriots, and was a very undersized player when he first showed up to college. I didn’t really spot him on the field much this year, but that may be a good thing- He didn’t have the Nate Jones factor (Hi, I’m a situational player! You know me- I’ll be the dude eating a receiver’s dust!’).

I seriously, seriously doubt that the Cowboys will look for a linebacker in the early rounds of this draft. Just for the sake of preparing for all contingencies, however, I’ll run over a few of the guys projected to go in the first.

Keith Rivers, Outside linebacker. The USC senior is the most highly regarded of the LBs in this draft, and is projected in the top ten or fifteen by most. He’s got athleticism but lacks size (a mere 220 pounds) and is considered a hard worker. His tackling is reminiscent of the much-maligned Roy, as he will try to force fumbles and cameras, rather than wrapping up the ball carrier. He isn’t held in high regard as a coverage linebacker, but can blitz with the best of them. Best case comp: Jevon Kearse.

Dan Connor, Outside linebacker. The Penn State grad draws reports eerily similar to Bobby Carpenter’s: He’s considered solid in every aspect of the game, plays hard, and is considered polished-but has trouble shedding blockers and lacks strength. I can’t think of a great comp offhand, but Connor should become a solid linebacker, albeit never considered a superstar.

We move to the free agents. This class is highlighted by one standout (Lance Briggs) one young, exciting player (Karlos Dansby) and a bunch of mid-level guys mostly of the reliable, lunch-pail mold. This isn’t necessarily a rip on the class; teams like the Patriots have done great things with a lot of average FA pickups. And the Cowboys aren’t going to be looking for any superstar linebackers in the first place, we’re fine at that position. Just for Stool and Giggles, though, I’ll run down a few of the more highly regarded mid-range guys. We have the legendary Tedy Bruschi (although it remains to be seen whether he will retire) the highly-regarded Kawika Mitchell who is making a name for himself with the Giants, and Boss Bailey the Lion, who is good when not injured. Mid-level guys include Na’il Diggs, Darryl Blackstock, and Demorrio Williams.

I’d like to acknowledge Scott Wright’s NFL Draft Countdown ( and Football’s Future ( for a lot of my information. I gather my info from a lot of places and couldn’t possibly name them all without making this into a dissertation, but those two are my primary sources. Props to both of those sites.

I really need to space these out, rather than doing it all in one night :P
Hope you guys are enjoying them, though. I’ll address the defensive line next.

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